Lincoln Southeast is ready for an encore.
So are the returning quarterbacks on many of the teams that would like to spoil Southeast's bid to be the first back-to-back Class A champion since 1998.
The Knights were the first team since 1955 to win a state title — playoff or ratings — with a first-year head coach. Ryan Gottula, who took the job only four months before the season, coached them to a 12-1 record and a 21-10 win over previously undefeated Omaha Burke in the title game in Memorial Stadium.
Gottula said there isn't much he's planning to change from his rookie season.
“Last year was a smooth transition. I had been at Southeast for two years. I was familiar with the players and the entire staff returned,'' he said. “Everything I wanted to do, for our offensive and defensive systems, we had in for last year.”
Southeast won in 2011 with a new quarterback, junior Najee Jackson, who was following a Division I recruit, Derrius Vick, at the position. And a new running back, junior Devin Washington, who developed durability and power as he ran for a school-record 1,907 yards and 22 touchdowns on 299 carries.
Also back on offense are three starters on the line — Landon Kubicek, Tanner Webster and junior FBS prospect DJ Foster — and wide receivers Desmond Robinson and Devonte Madlock.
“When you have your starting quarterback back, things go easier as far as getting the system going through the summer clinics and the start of practice,'' Gottula said.
With Jackson, Southeast is one of the eight teams in the preseason Top 10 with a veteran quarterback. No. 2 Millard South has junior Anthony Cloyd, No. 3 Millard North has third-year starter Isaac Aakre, No. 4 Millard West has junior Ross Drwol.
Junior Alec Ditoro is back for No. 5 Papillion-La Vista. Same for senior Zach Cook with No. 7 Omaha Burke, junior Brook Bolles with No. 8 Lincoln North Star and senior Zach Martin with No. 9 Omaha North.
Only No. 6 Lincoln Southwest and No. 10 Omaha Central will be breaking in new snap-takers.
“There are a lot of good ones around. They're different players in style, but they are experienced,'' Gottula said. “I just see a lot of quality teams this year, a lot of depth. It makes it interesting for the regular season and playoffs.”
His team has a 1-vs.-2 ratings matchup on Sept. 7 with Millard South — provided neither gets tripped up in its first two games. In season openers Friday, Southeast meets Millard West and Millard South plays Millard North.
The Millard South game is a rematch of Southeast's 28-7 win last year in the quarterfinals, snapping a string of three consecutive state-final appearances for the Patriots. In that game, Millard South led 7-0 at halftime.
“And we had been on the 1 and didn't score. It could have been 14-0 at the half,'' Millard South coach Andy Means said. “They did a great job and we made some mistakes. You can't do that against a team that eventually was state champion.”
The Patriots began their 2011 season with only two returning starters, neither on offense. They lost three of their first five games (although getting one back on a forfeited game by Millard North), before reeling off five straight to get to Southeast.
“What I liked about last year is we got better and played with more confidence, and I hope we can continue that as we start the season,'' Means said. “We were kind of limited in what we could do last year. At the beginning we added too much, too soon. We cut back and then added as the kids caught on.”
So expect the Patriots' offense to rank among the most potent in Class A. To make it interesting in the backfield, there are two new running backs — Quentin Williams from Central and Christian Donahue from Lincoln Southwest.
“Anthony (Cloyd) got a year under his belt and we expect him to be better,'' Means said, “and all those who had to start as juniors last year, we expect them to step up and be better than the year before.”
How about defenses? That's where Southeast ultimately was the best last year. For the Knights, defensive back Luke Gifford is their lone returning starter on that unit.
“We like the guys we'll have over there,” Gottula said. “They're good athletes, just not with a ton of experience. It's a matter of getting guys put into the right positions against some great teams early in the year.”
His philosophy is to avoid using players on both offense and defense, but it happened last year with All-Nebraska defensive ends Sam Cotton and Trey Foster and several of the offensive returners may be seeing some double duty.
Millard South is on the other end of experience, with eight returning starters. Outside linebacker is the only position for the Patriots to break in new people. Up front are playmakers Freeman Coleman in the interior of the 4-4 alignment and Bryce Sosnowski (eight sacks last year) at defensive end.
Also noteworthy as the season begins Thursday:
Going for more: The preseason favorites in the other three 11-man classes are last year's champions: Elkhorn in Class B, Norfolk Catholic in C-1 and David City Aquinas in C-2. Norfolk Catholic, the only two-time defending champion, has a 26-game winning streak. Other preseason No. 1s are Howells-Dodge in Eight Man-1, Falls City Sacred Heart in Eight Man-2 and Elkhorn Valley in Six Man.
TV games: Gretna's game at Omaha Skutt on Thursday night begins the second season of “Thursday Night Showdown.” The World-Herald's NEPrepZone.com again is a partner with KXVO (Cox Channel 11) in the nine-game package that includes several enticing Class B games and a pair of games matching 2011 Class A qualifiers — Lincoln East at Papillion-La Vista on Aug. 30 and Millard West against Omaha Creighton Prep on Oct. 4.
New names: Twin Loup. Cedar Valley. Boyd County. CWC. Happens after every new two-year schedule cycle — schools combine forces and change names. Twin Loup: Sargent and Loup County. Cedar Valley: Greeley-Wolbach and Cedar Rapids. Boyd County: West Boyd (Spencer-Naper, Butte) and Lynch. CWC: Chambers and Wheeler Central. Three more new alliances are Ansley-Litchfield, Clarkson/Leigh and Howells-Dodge.
Turf wars: Grass stains are becoming less common. New this year to synthetic turf are Columbus (Pawnee Park), Omaha Skutt, Beatrice (new on-campus stadium) and Johnson-Brock.
And 1955? Who was the first team with a first-year coach to be No. 1? Omaha Creighton Prep, with Don Leahy. The Junior Jays didn't get the repeat, by the way, losing 19-16 to an Omaha North team that went undefeated for its first ratings title.